Estimates of effective population size (Ne) are required to predict the impacts of genetic drift and inbreeding on the evolutionary dynamics of populations. How the ratio of Ne to the number of sexually mature adults (N) varies in natural vertebrate populations has not been addressed. We examined the sensitivity of Ne/N to fluctuations of N and determined the major variables responsible for changing the ratio over a period of 17 years in a population of steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) from Washington State. Demographic and genetic methods were used to estimate Ne. Genetic estimates of Ne were gained via temporal and linkage disequilibrium methods using data from eight microsatellite loci. DNA for genetic analysis was amplified from archived smolt scales. The Ne/N from 1977 to 1994, estimated using the temporal method, was 0.73 and the comprehensive demographic estimate of Ne/N over the same time period was 0.53. Demographic estimates of Ne indicated that variance in reproductive success had the most substantial impact on reducing Ne in this population, followed by fluctuations in population size. We found increased Ne/N ratios at low N, which we identified as genetic compensation. Combining the information from the demographic and genetic methods of estimating Ne allowed us to determine that a reduction in variance in reproductive success must be responsible for this compensation effect. Understanding genetic compensation in natural populations will be valuable for predicting the effects of changes in N (i.e. periods of high population density and bottlenecks) on the fitness and genetic variation of natural populations.