Life history traits of highly vagile marine species, such as adult reproductive success and larval dispersal, are strongly determined by oceanographic and climatic forces. Nevertheless, marine organisms may show restricted dispersal in time and space. Patterns of isolation by distance (IBD) have been repeatedly observed in marine species. If spawning time is a function of geographical location, temporal and spatial isolation, can easily be confounded or misinterpreted. In this study, we aimed at discriminating between various forces shaping the genetic composition of recruiting juveniles of the European eel (Anguilla anguilla L.). By controlling for geographical variation, we assessed temporal variation and tested for possible isolation by time (IBT) between recruitment waves within and between years. Using 12 polymorphic allozyme and six variable microsatellite loci, we show that genetic differentiation was low (FST = 0.01–0.002) and significant between temporal samples. Regression analysis between genetic and temporal distance, was consistent with a subtle interannual pattern of IBT. Our data suggest that the population dynamics of the European eel may be governed by a double pattern of temporal variance in genetic composition: (i) a broad-scale IBT of spawning cohorts, possibly as a consequence of the large migration loop in anguillids and strong variance in annual adult reproductive contribution; and (ii) a smaller-scale variance in reproductive success (genetic patchiness) within cohorts among seasonally separated spawning groups, most likely originating from fluctuating oceanic and climatic forces. The consistency of both mechanisms remains to be verified with fine-scale analyses of both spawning/migrating aged adults and their offspring to confirm the stochastic/deterministic nature of the IBT pattern in eel.