Salmon are scarce (aren't they always?) the best of grayling is almost over and the brown trout season has not yet begun. Happily in my neck of the highland woods, it can still be classed as a good fishing month for February 12th sees the start of the sea trout season.

On Orkney and Shetland, salt water trouters hit their local coastline with a vengeance and over on the mainland the vast estuary at Tongue in North West Sutherland also sees a lot of action. Though in general terms, Scottish sea trout have suffered a severe decline, notably from such horrors as sea lice infestation from fish farms, there are still some untainted pockets of silver sea trout to attract the anglers attention. It's just you must look harder for them and be prepared to fish in salt or brackish water as well as fresh.

Angling for early sea trout is supremely challenging. Forget 'soft' bonefishing or similar fads, being able to tempt a native sea trout from his salty home as breakers crash and sleet rattles round your ears is the ultimate fishing skill. Despite it's reputation, it's still an underrated sport probably because of the confusion over whether February sea trout are fresh fish.

When fishing for sea trout in the early part of the season the quarry you are after are naturalised sea dwelling fish which have not yet returned to their native river birthplace. These are largely 'virgin' trout busily spending a goodly part of their youth at sea enjoying the richer feeding the ocean offers. They maintain a pelagic lifestyle hunting in shoals and are sometimes known as 'finnock'. However while finnock are usually thought to be small immature fingerling fish of a pound or less, the size of some of these sea roving fish will both surprise and delight you. Trout of up to 4 or 5lb can be caught in February and trout of 2lb plus are common.

This is where the controversy arises however for some anglers will claim early fish of this size must be sexually mature 'kelt' trout which have been up river to spawn and are in the process of falling back to sea to recover. All migratory kelt fish should be returned under the Salmon Act (which covers sea trout as well) and therefore it is sometimes claimed large trout caught in February are being illegally taken as kelts. Well, my answer to that is just occasionally they might be, but usually they are not. Scientific evidence has been produced to prove that these large early trout are non spawning sea dwelling fish which have grown to hefty sizes.

Some years ago the Angling Club at Tongue had some early sea trout of 3- 5lb 'scaled' i.e. they sent fish scale samples for laboratory testing. The results were most interesting, for examinations showed the fish had not spawned even at their large size. It would appear that the fish had simply made an `executive decision' to stay at sea where the feeding is much richer. - Seems there is much still to be learned about the habits of sea trout in their oceanic phase.

If the possibilities of catching kelt trout are controversial, the whole definition of what is a sea trout is equally open to debate. For many years sea and brown trout were classed as separate species, however accepted theory nowadays puts a sea trout as 'a brown trout which has gone to sea'. What is harder for many to understand is the nature and behaviour of trout while in the briny for though anatomically they are the same thing, their behaviour does not suggest that. For example the trout at sea is not a particularly territorial creature. Salt water trout are much more willing to shoal together both for safety and for feeding purposes. Though they may have been born in freshwater, they easily assume the habits of pelagic fish roving freely along their coastline feeding grounds. This is where the February connection comes in, for the fish caught then are almost always `saltwater' trout as opposed to the fresh run trout which have spawned and dropped back to sea to recover.

Equally odd is the noticeable division of the sexes. The male trout appears more likely to stay in freshwater defending his river territory, while the females seem more likely to migrate to sea to enjoy the better feeding and prepare better for reproduction. Thus when you catch a larger than average solitary brown trout in the stream it could well be a sea trout male awaiting his returning damsel. Indeed the further you look into it the more grey areas appear.

Sea trout have traditionally always been classed as migratory fish. While it's true that any brown trout with access to sea can migrate if it feels the urge, it must not be forgotten that trout with no access to the ocean can just as easily migrate over long distances to breed. Just like their sea relatives, freshwater trout in large stretches of water will often travel over many miles to return to the stream of their birth and will also actively migrate to better sources of food if they become available. At the time say of mayfly or bibio hatches, the trout appear to shoal and congregate in number to mop up a particularly lush food source.

It can be quite rightly argued that all brown trout have sea trout qualities and that all sea trout have brown trout characteristics. As the scientists say, they are the same species. But therein lies the rub for while sea trout are covered by migratory fish laws, the trout of freshwater are not. This is an issue which must be urgently addressed.