For organisms with great fecundity and high mortality in early life stages, such as shellfish or fishes, the need to match reproductive activity with environmental conditions conducive to spawning, fertilization, larval development and recruitment may result in extreme variance in reproductive success among individuals. The main objective of this study was to investigate evidence of large variance in the reproductive success of the striped bass Morone saxatilis in the Santee–Cooper system, South Carolina, USA. Seven microsatellite loci were analysed in 603 recruits representing three yearly cohorts from 1992 to 1994, and a group analysis was performed to identify full-sib families. Large variance in reproductive success was detected, with a few large, full-sib families contributing disproportionately to each of the cohorts. The severity of sweepstakes reproductive success varied among cohorts depending on environmentally imposed mortality. Estimations of the effective number of breeders in these long-lived fish ranged from 24 in 1992 to 44 in 1994. Furthermore, the estimated genetic effective population size (Ne = 93) is approximately four orders of magnitude lower than estimates of adult census size (N = 362 000). Furthermore, the presence of large full-sib families indicates that striped bass engage in pair mating in the wild. Heterogeneity in genetic composition was also observed among cohorts, suggesting that genetically different adults contribute to different cohorts and that chance rather than fitness variation determines reproductive success.