Ernest Hemingway said every writer needs a "shockproof B.S.-detector." My B.S.-detector has been getting a workout, as the presidential candidates have been hunting for votes this autumn. In particular, they are seeking the votes of the 47 million Americans who hunt and fish. In a race this tight, politicians see this as a bloc as valuable as soccer moms and NASCAR dads.

George W. Bush shakes hands at Cabela’s sporting goods store; John Kerry flaunts his wing-shooting skills at local skeet clubs. You would think each had that Looney Tune hunter Elmer Fudd as a running mate.

Most Washington, D.C., political groomsmen don’t know a woolly bugger from a royal coachman (they’re fishing flies, for those not in the know), so the candidates are flying solo here. It’s fun to watch.

It’s flattering to be flirted with, but those of us who worry more about hitting targets than reaching a target audience can easily see thin spots in the orange-wash. President Bush and John Kerry answered questions posed by Outdoor Life and Field & Stream magazines, the "hook-and-bullet press."

These well-born, Ivy League elites worked hard to come across as Bubbas, everyday deer-slayers, a latter-day Theodore Roosevelt. But it was obvious they spend more time reading the polls on the campaign trail than reading the sign on a game trail.

Field & Stream asked the president a logical question: "What guns do you have in your gun cabinet?"

"A couple deer rifles and a varmint rifle. A .248?" Bush guessed. Ding-ding-ding goes the B.S.-detector. There is no such thing as a .248 caliber rifle. (Of course, there’s no such thing as an Iraqi WMD either, but that didn’t stop Bush.)

"You mean, perhaps, a .243?" lofted the interviewer. Right, Bush said, swinging for the softball. "A .243. Beg your pardon."

Not to be outdone, Kerry bombed, too. The reporter asked what the biggest deer he ever shot was. "Oh, I don’t know … Probably an 8-pointer or something like that."

C’mon, John. "Something like that?" Any deer hunter worth his boot grease knows exactly how big his biggest buck was and can tell you how long the shot was and how cold his feet were when he pulled the trigger.

Outdoor Life asked the candidates to identify their favorite gun. Bush said he was particularly fond of a Weatherby shotgun he was given. Weatherby is an American-made brand of gun, the kind of expensive, glossy collector’s piece you might expect the son of a Texas oilman to shoot. Bush did better on this answer — he named an actual firearm.

John Kerry said his favorite gun was "the M-16 that saved my life and that of my crew in Vietnam." Zinger! Kerry wins the macho points on that one, but his answer has nothing to do with hunting.

No reporter asked either candidate if they had ever been caught violating a fish and game regulation. We don’t know Kerry’s record on this, but a little research reveals that Bush, when gunning to become governor of Texas, blew away a protected songbird called a killdeer, which he mistook for a legal game bird, the mourning dove. But hey, he’s not seeking the approval of the Audubon Society here.

When all the posturing is done, you can always look at the record. Republicans blast John Kerry for his "F" rating from the National Rifle Association for his Senate votes, such as supporting the Brady Bill and the ban on assault rifles. I’ve always maintained you don’t need exploding bullets or an AK-47 to hunt whitetails, so this NRA rating fails to motivate me.

Then, you can look at Bush’s record on publicly owned land, where most of us Westerners hunt and fish. For four years, he has worked to increase oil and gas exploration on some of America’s prime hunting and fishing habitat, and relaxed protections on the roadless forests where hunters like me enjoy solitude, peace and quiet, and some of the largest bucks and bulls around.

You can’t hunt without habitat. As a friend of mine, who happens to be an NRA member and a staunch Republican, says: "Hunting and fishing isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are. An attack on our public land is an attack on our very core."

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Kalispell, Montana.