The inter-annual variability in year class strength (1976–2000) of North Sea herring (Clupea harengus) was investigated using Paulik diagrams based on survey data and Virtual Population Analysis. The herring life cycle was split into five stages: spawning stock biomass (SSB), egg production, larvae, fish with 0 winter rings on the otolith (0-wr), 1-wr and 2-wr. Surveys were used as indices and Paulik analysis revealed relationships between stages. In 80% of the years, year class strength reflected SSB. Poorer than expected year classes were determined during the larva to 0-wr phase, whilst stronger than expected year classes were apparently determined during the 0-wr to 1-wr stage. There was no clear relationship between survival of young stages of herring and the abundance of Calanus finmarchicus but the year class strength of 0-wr and 1-wr had a negative relationship to bottom water temperature. Lower sea water temperatures in the North Sea are associated with higher Calanus abundance. The analysis shows that the strength of aberrant year classes of North Sea herring is determined between the pelagic larval and the juvenile stages.