Sanger Rainsford and his friend, Whitney, are traveling to the Amazon rainforest to hunt the region's big cat: the jaguar. After a discussion about how they are "the hunters" instead of "the hunted", Whitney goes to bed and Rainsford hears gunshots. He climbs onto the yacht's rail and accidentally falls overboard, swimming to Ship-Trap Island, which is notorious for shipwrecks. On the island, 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. Any captives who can elude Zaroff, Ivan, and a pack of hunting dogs for three days are set free. Zaroff reveals that no one has lasted that long, although a couple of sailors had come close. Zaroff also says that he offers sailors a "choice"; should they decline to be hunted they will be handed over to Ivan, who had once been official knouter for The Great White Czar. Rainsford denounces this as barbarism. Zaroff reacts in a cosmopolitan manner that "life is for the strong". Realizing he has no way out, Rainsford reluctantly agrees to be hunted.
During his three-hour head start, Rainsford lays 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, standing underneath the tree Rainsford is hiding in, smoking a cigarette, and then abruptly departing. After the failed attempt at 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, but before doing so shouts that if Rainsford is within earshot, his trap was commendable as few could pull it off. The next day Rainsford creates a Burmese tiger pit, which kills one of Zaroff's hounds. He sacrifices his knife and ties it to a sapling to make a Ugandan knife trap; Ivan is killed when he stumbles into this trap and the knife plunges into his heart. 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 smokes a pipe by his fireplace, but two issues keep him from peace of mind, first, it would be hard to replace Ivan, and second, whether Rainsford did indeed perish.
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 without the dogs finding him. 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.