Sanger Rainsford and his friend, Whitney, travel to Rio de Janeiro to hunt the region’s big cat: the jaguar. After a discussion about how they are “the hunters” instead of “the huntees” Whitney goes to bed and Rainsford remains on deck. While Whitney returns to his quarters Rainsford hears gunshots, climbs onto the yachts' rail to get a better view of the nearby Ship-Trap Island, and falls overboard. After he realizes he cannot swim back to the boat, he swims to Ship-Trap, which is notorious for shipwrecks. He finds a palatial chateau inhabited by two Cossacks: the owner, General Zaroff, and his gigantic deaf-mute servant, Ivan. Zaroff, another big-game hunter, knows of Rainsford from his published account of hunting snow leopards in Tibet. After inviting him to dinner, General Zaroff tells Rainsford he is bored of hunting because it no longer challenges him; he has moved to Ship-Trap in order to capture shipwrecked sailors, whether due to storms or by luring vessels onto the rocks. He sends them into the jungle supplied with food, a knife, and hunting clothes to be his quarry. After a three-hour head start, he sets out to hunt and kill them. Any captives who can elude Zaroff, Ivan, and a pack of hunting dogs for three days are set free; however, no one has eluded him that long. Zaroff invites Rainsford to join him in his hunt, but Rainsford is appalled by Zaroff’s motives and refuses. Zaroff then tells Rainsford that he can choose whether he will be the next to be hunted or whipped to death by Ivan; Rainsford chooses to be hunted.
During the three-hour head start, Rainsford begins to lay an intricate trail in the forest and then climbs a tree. Zaroff finds him easily, but decides to play with him like a cat would a mouse. After the failed attempt of eluding Zaroff, Rainsford builds a Malay-man-catcher, a weighted log attached to a trigger. This contraption injures Zaroff's shoulder, causing him to return home for the night. The next day Rainsford creates a Burmese tiger pit, which kills one of Zaroff's hounds. He sets a native Ugandan knife trap, which impales and kills Ivan, but costs him his knife. To escape Zaroff and his approaching hounds, Rainsford dives off a cliff into the sea; Zaroff, disappointed at Rainsford's apparent suicide, returns home.
Zaroff locks himself in his bedroom and turns on the lights only to find Rainsford waiting for him; he had swum around the island in order to sneak into the chateau. Zaroff congratulates him on winning the "game," but Rainsford decides to fight him, saying he is still a beast-at-bay and that the original hunt is not over. Accepting the challenge, Zaroff says that the loser will be fed to the dogs, while the winner will sleep in his bed. Though the ensuing fight is not described, the story ends with Rainsford observing that "he had never slept in a better bed," implying that he defeated and killed Zaroff.