When hunters and antihunters squared off at McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area near Poolesville before dawn Saturday, the only thing missing was Geraldo Rivera.

Antihunters showed grotesque videotapes of animals getting shot, while off-duty hunters in business suits manned an information booth across the road, dishing out pamphlets with their side of the story.

When TV crews arrived it was "a real carnival," according to Ken D'Loughy, Southern regional wildlife manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. "It was like a movie set -- a lot of people standing around with signs, then when the lights go on, everyone pipes up with their chants and cheers."

It marked the second straight year Wayne Pacelle and his Fund for Animals organized a protest on opening day of bow season for deer, but this time he lost the element of surprise.

Where a year ago all Pacelle found to debate were dazed bowhunters fresh from their beds, this time he faced well-versed hunting proponents from the Maryland Bowhunters Association, National Wild Turkey Federation, Izaak Walton League, Maryland Fur Trappers, Maryland Farm Bureau, Maryland Taxidermist Association and the National Rifle Association, in numbers that evened the sides at about 150 apiece.

It was the first time Maryland hunters mounted a counterprotest. Predictably, both sides claimed victory.

"We forced them to play our game," said Russ Nichols of the Maryland Bowhunters. "They were stuck out on the road counteracting our demonstration, which kept most of them from harassing hunters in the woods."

"The hunters got to make the case for their form of wildlife management," said Pacelle, "and we made ours. All this is happening right here in the Beltway area and people are getting exposed to it."

Ten antihunters were arrested for harassing archers and assigned court dates in November, giving Pacelle's group another chance to challenge a state law it considers unconstitutional. Meantime, by nightfall four deer had been checked in at Poole's Store up the road, though no one there was sure if they were killed at McKee Beshers or elsewhere in the deer-rich woods nearby.

Yesterday bowhunters were back in their tree stands, enjoying the peace and quiet, and Pacelle and his troops were back in FFA's Silver Spring office working the phones.

All of which adds up to a perfect, if undoubtedly temporary, solution to the budding spate of antihunting protests in the region. Now that hunters have organized a counterprotest strike force, everybody who cares for this political circus can turn up on appointed dates and enjoy a fair fight. Those who just want to go hunting should know enough to head elsewhere.

Mark your calendars for a reprise next month, for example, on opening day of Virginia's bow season at Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Fairfax County, and again in November at McKee Beshers on opening day of Maryland gun season.

After a while the sides may tire of their predawn shouting matches and emerge in the light of day to debate the issues in a public forum, which would make things easier on the TV crews. It has happened elsewhere.

Nichols said the United Bowhunters of New Jersey had been counterprotesting so long, it was becoming boring to the media. When antihunters stage demonstrations there, he said, the hunters are in place "presenting the conservation case from their perspective." Ho-hum. And when there are no demonstrations, both sides are off meeting with editors, station managers and elected officials, pressing their cases.

That is Nichols's aim here, he said -- to create a level field for the debate over the future of the sport. He figures 52,000 registered Maryland bowhunters should hold their own against 6,000 Marylanders in Fund for Animals. Pacelle said other groups and tens of thousands of private citizens support his group's view.

Pacelle maintains bowhunting is cruel. He says half the deer shot by archers are wounded and unretrieved, and that many wind up dying painful deaths for nothing.

But he also conceded that bowhunting was only the first and most convenient target in a long-term mission to ban all sport hunting, and that his group's "broadest goal is to ensure more just treatment of all animals," a gentle way of saying he envisions a world where man eats no meat.

Nichols challenged Pacelle's bowhunting figures, citing studies that maintain far fewer than half the deer shot by archers are wounded and unretrieved. Nichols also claimed deer with nonlethal arrow wounds "have tremendous recovery capability" and rarely die from those injuries.

Nichols said his goal is to make three points with the general public:

That wildlife is abundant and thriving in North America, with populations of deer, beaver, wild turkey and other species at all-time highs.

That hunters, fishers and trappers founded the U.S. conservation movement in the last century and pay for wildlife habitat protection with their taxes and fees.

That a recent University of Michigan survey found less than 5 percent of respondents opposed to hunting, and they turned out to be the least knowledgeable about wildlife in the group.

All of which sounds more like food for cogitation and debate than ammo for a food fight.

Sorry about that, Geraldo.