More than 50,000 steelhead, most ranging from 8 to 12 pounds, ram up the St. Joseph River every year. Since most rivers don’t have weirs where every fish can be counted, it’s unknown how many steelhead return to most streams. Safe to say, however, that it probably isn’t 50,000. The St. Joe is, in a word, awesome. For sheer numbers, it could well be the finest steelhead river on earth.

“Oh yeah?” challenges John Hojanacki, inveterate Michigan steelheader. “I love the Joe, but if it gets a run of 50,000, I’ll bet the Grand River (Michigan) gets 75,000. Has to. Look how many tribs that river has that couldn’t hold another steelhead in spring if you tried to wedge it in with a crowbar.”

And the Grand, you’ll note, didn’t even make our list. Too close to the Joe. Actually, the rivers mentioned here represent a sampling of the best rivers from each state, to even things out through the region. That doesn’t mean these rivers don’t belong on somebody’s list of the best steelhead streams in the Midwest. And choosing an actual “Top 10” is virtually impossible in a year when steelhead are returning in record numbers all over the region. Suffice it to say our Top 10 isn’t offered in any particular order of preference or pick.

“This is already the best year ever on the Salmon River,” says Rob Sherwood of Triple S Sporting Supplies in New York. “It’s the best year ever on all the Lake Ontario tribs.”

“We’re having the best run of steelhead I’ve ever seen this early in the year,” echoed guide Mark Chmura back in September. “Manistee River steelhead are running 10 to 16 pounds. Finding one less than 8 pounds is harder than finding a 20-pounder.”

Don waders in the dusk before dawn. March through the misty forested stillness to a quiet run of ink-black water kneading beneath outstretched ferns in a dim light. Giant silver torpedoes lie hidden in the flow. Your own fish, on your own terms. Could be the best year ever for this rewarding and altogether unique angling experience.

1. St. Joseph River, Michigan-Indiana: BJs Sports, 616/429-8271.

2. Niagara River, Ontario-New York: Guide John Oravec, 800/443-2510; Information: Downriver Bait & Tackle, 716/754-4272.

3. Root River, Wisconsin: Information: Dave Sura, 262/635-5220.

4. Big Manistee River, Michigan: Guide Mark Chmura, 231/864-3747, Guide John Kestner, 231/745-3972.

5. Salmon River, New York: All ­Seasons Sports, 315/298-6433.

6. Grand River, Ohio: Grand River Tackle, 440/354-8473; Guide Mark DeCarlo, 742/349-8742.

7. AuSable River, Michigan: Guide Keith Poland, 419/878-3873.

8. Trail Creek, Indiana: Guide Jay W. Anglin, 219/326-9531.

9. Elk Creek, Pennsylvania: John Nagy’s Steelhead Guide Service, 412/531-5819.

10. Cataraugus Creek, New York: Information: Gary Sprague, 716/532-2585.

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