In this study, relationships between flow variation across multiple temporal scales and the distribution and abundance of three fish species, western rainbowfish Melanotaenia australis, sooty grunter Hephaestus fuliginosus and barramundi Lates calcarifer were examined at eight sampling reaches in the Daly River, Northern Territory, Australia. Discharge was highly seasonal during the study period of 2006–2010 with a distinct wet–dry discharge pattern. Significant catchment-wide correlations were identified between species abundance and hydrologic variables across several scales describing the magnitude and variability of flow. A Bayesian hierarchical model which accounted for >80% of variation in abundances for all species and age classes (i.e. juvenile and adult), identified the extent to which the influence of short-term flow variation was dependent upon the historical flow regime. There were distinct ontogenetic differences in these relationships for H. fuliginosus, with variability of recent flows having a negative effect on juveniles which was stronger at locations with higher historical mean daily flow. Lates calcarifer also displayed ontogenetic differences in relationships to flow variation with adults showing a positive association with increase in recent flows and juveniles showing a negative one. The effect of increased magnitude of wet-season flows on M. australis was negative in locations with lower historical mean daily flow but positive in locations with higher historical mean daily flow. The results highlighted how interactions between multiple scales of flow variability influence the abundance of fish species according to their life-history requirements.