McMurphy has things his own way for a while after the incident with the cigarettes. Nurse Ratched is in no hurry to retaliate because she knows she can prolong the fight as long as she wishes. McMurphy gets together a basketball team and talks the doctor into letting him bring a ball back from the gym to get the team used to handling it. Trying to push the limits, McMurphy requests an Accompanied Pass—to be accompanied specifically by "a switch from Portland named Candy Starr." When this request is turned down, McMurphy breaks the glass again. The other Acutes begin to follow McMurphy's lead in behaving aggressively. Martini accidentally bounces the basketball into the window, breaking it a third time.
McMurphy decides that fishing is the thing to do. He requests a pass after telling the doctor he has some friends at the Siuslaw Bay at Florence who could take several patients deep-sea fishing. He would be accompanied by "two sweet old aunts from a little place outside of Oregon City." McMurphy begins recruiting patients to go, but Nurse Ratched puts up clippings about wrecked boats and sudden storms on the coast in efforts to dissuade the patients.
Chief Bromden wants to go but does not have the money and does not want Nurse Ratched to think that he can hear others. Bromden remembers that he did not start acting deaf; others started acting as if he were too dumb to hear or see anything. Bromden reminisces about his childhood, when men in Stetson hats used to visit the Indian reservation where he lived. These men insulted the Indians in front of Bromden, but when he attempted to speak up, they ignored him.
One night McMurphy finds Chief Bromden awake and talks to him. He wonders where he gets his chewing gum, for Chief Bromden never visits the canteen, but then realizes that the Chief chews already-used gum. McMurphy gives Bromden a new pack of Juicy Fruit; he tries to actually speak the words “Thank you.” McMurphy tells Bromden that he once had a job picking beans. Since he was the only kid there, McMurphy never said a word, but he listened intently and, on the last day, revealed all that he heard and created a disturbance. McMurphy wonders if Chief Bromden is doing the same thing, but he admits to McMurphy that he could not tell anyone off like McMurphy does because Bromden is not as big or as tough.
Bromden also tells McMurphy that his father was a full Chief, Tee Ah Millatoona (The Pine That Stands Tallest on the Mountain)—and his mother was twice his size. Bromden says that the Combine worked on his father for years, but his father fought it until his mother made him too little to fight anymore. Bromden wants to touch McMurphy, not because he is "one of those queers" but because of who he is. McMurphy offers to let Chief Bromden go on the fishing trip for free. He wonders if Chief Bromden could lift the control panel in the tub room. He suggests that the Chief take the opportunity and break out of the institution.
Chief Bromden eagerly awaits the deep-sea fishing trip. He sees that McMurphy signed his name on the list. The black boys wonder who signed Chief Bromden's name, fully convinced that Indians cannot read or write. McMurphy wakes up the others on the ward, trying to gather one more person to go on the trip. George Sorenson, a big, toothless old Swede with a compulsion about sanitation, agrees to go.
Nurse Ratched arrives and attempts to scare the patients once more about the dangers on the ocean. Still, George remains resolved to go, and McMurphy even makes him “captain.” Only one of the two chaperones/whores arrives, a girl named Candy, and she is late. She tells McMurphy that Sandra, the other hooker, left and got married. Nurse Ratched does not allow the men to leave because they need another chaperone for so many patients. Dr. Spivey agrees to accompany them.
When the men stop for gas, the service-station man asks if they are from the asylum. The doctor tells him that they are a work crew, not inmates. The service-station man behaves rudely to the men, but McMurphy tells them that they are in fact criminally insane men from the asylum and are entitled to a government-sponsored discount. Harding perceives that mental illness has the aspect of power: the more insane a man is, the more powerful he can become.
When they reach the docks, McMurphy argues with the captain who was supposed to take them out. He demands a signed waiver clearing him with the proper authorities. While McMurphy argues with the captain, a couple of men at the dock yell disparaging comments at Candy, asking whether she is one of the insane or part of the cure for them. McMurphy exits the captain's office and tells the men to quickly get in the boat. They all jump in and push off before the captain gets off the phone.
Candy and Billy Bibbit fish together, and she nearly gets hurt, but everyone laughs at the situation thanks to McMurphy. Dr. Spivey hooks the largest fish, but it takes several men to pull it in. When the men return to shore, the police are waiting for them. The doctor claims that they are a legal, government-sponsored expedition, and he notes that there were not enough life jackets on the boat. The captain thus decides not to press charges. The men who made disparaging comments to Candy say nothing when they return from fishing, for they sense a change in the inmates; these are not the same bunch of "weak-knees from a nuthouse" as before.
On the ride back to the institution, Candy falls asleep against Billy's chest. He later asks her for a date. McMurphy plans to sneak Candy into the ward on Saturday night so she can meet with Billy. McMurphy seems exhausted on the trip back to the institution. He points out the house where he lived as a youth and points out a dress hanging in the branches of a tree. The first girl who dragged McMurphy to bed wore that dress, and it now stands in the tree as a de facto memorial. He was about ten at the time.
McMurphy becomes more bold in Chapter Twenty-Four, erroneously believing that Nurse Ratched's failure to retaliate against him indicates that he has won. Instead, however, Nurse Ratched refuses to respond to McMurphy's aggressive stance because she is confident that she will inevitably break him. McMurphy's behavior seems, in fact, a tactical error, for his aggression does not promote self-sufficiency among the patients so much as insubordination. Nurse Ratched essentially gives McMurphy this latitude to allow him eventually to make a grievous error that would justify punishment. Still, the conflict between the two characters remains muted. Nurse Ratched is content with subtle undermining of the fishing trip by putting up clippings of news stories.
Chief Bromden's stories about his childhood suggest that he, like Harding and Billy Bibbit, suffers to some degree from a domineering female. Like Billy Bibbit, Chief Bromden is intimidated by his mother, whom he describes as "twice as tall" as his tall father. Bromden indicates that his mother dominated both him and his father, contributing to the problems they faced. It is from his father that Chief Bromden developed the idea of the Combine. The stories also relate a great deal about his character. He appears to be deaf and dumb primarily because he has been intimidated by others around him, including the callous inspectors or his domineering mother. He has been ignored or disregarded out of racism and other factors, yet he is ready to reassert himself once McMurphy shows him a degree of kindness and respect. Chief Bromden is the best example of the beneficial effect that McMurphy has on the patients in the institution.
The narrator employs foreshadowing again later when McMurphy discusses the control panel in the tub room. McMurphy gives Chief Bromden the idea that he might be able to lift the control panel and throw it through the window, allowing an escape. The reader is coming to believe that Bromden might gain enough wherewithal to do it. The question is what will ultimately motivate Chief Bromden to assert himself so strongly.
The conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy gives way during Chapter Twenty-Five to a different conflict between the institutional patients and the rest of society. Regular human society is not in the institution or out on the water; it is at the gas station and the docks. Upon leaving the institution, McMurphy and the other patients face the suspicion and mockery of those who view them as completely insane. The outsiders are probably more right than wrong, but McMurphy proudly faces these objections through confrontation, celebrating their insanity as a means of intimidation. The good doctor is also on their side, willing to lie when the time comes.
This chapter sets up further plot developments, such as the developing intimacy between Candy Starr and Billy Bibbit.
This chapter also carries strong religious imagery. McMurphy leaves the hospital with twelve followers, an allusion to the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, their task is deep-sea fishing, another Christian religious symbol insofar as the fish is a prominent symbol of Jesus. The accumulation of these allusions positions R.P. McMurphy as a Christ-figure in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. If he is a redeemer on the pattern of Christ, the inmates are being invited to cast aside their former selves and find new life in what McMurphy represents—freedom. But following this pattern, McMurphy must at least symbolically die for the men in order to accomplish their final transformation.
The fishing trip itself is a transformative event for the patients. It is a conversion for the men, for they return from their journey changed, now worthy of respect because they seem more sane than insane. The hecklers at the docks no longer mock the patients upon their return from fishing. While McMurphy and the trip itself are agents of the change, the transformation is also due to the patients' physical freedom from Nurse Ratched's control. Freed from her domineering policies, these men do have their own abilities to make their own choices; they can achieve the sense of self-worth that she denies them.