Salmonid fishes exhibit high levels of population differentiation. In particular, the brown trout (Salmo trutta L.) demonstrates complex within river drainage genetic structure. Increasingly, these patterns can be related to the underlying evolutionary models, of which three scenarios (member-vagrant hypothesis, metapopulation model and panmixia) facilitate testable predictions for investigations into population structure. We analysed 1225 trout collected from the River Dart, a 75 km long river located in southwest England. Specimens were collected from 22 sample sites across three consecutive summers (2001–2003) and genetic variation was examined at nine microsatellite loci. A hierarchical analysis of molecular variance revealed that negligible genetic variation was attributed among temporal samples. The highest levels of differentiation occurred among samples isolated above barriers to fish movement, and once these samples were removed, a significant effect of isolation-by-distance was observed. These results suggest that, at least in the short-term, ecological events are more important in shaping the population structure of Dart trout than stochastic extinction events, and certainly do not contradict the expectations of a member-vagrant hypothesis. Furthermore, individual-level spatial autocorrelation analyses support previous recommendations for the preservation of a number of spawning sites spaced throughout the tributary system to conserve the high levels of genetic variation identified in salmonid species.