We assessed short-term variability and long-term change in the composition of the littoral fish community in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Fish were sampled in several locations at night with large beach seines during spring, summer and fall of 1995-1998. Long-term changes were inferred from comparison with a similar study conducted over 70 y earlier in Spirit Lake. We found 26 species in the littoral zone. The number of species per sample ranged from 4 to 18, averaging 11.8. The average number of species per sample was higher at stations with greater vegetation density. A distinct seasonal pattern was evident in the number of species collected per sample in most years, increasing steadily from spring to fall. Patterns of variability within our 1995-1998 study period suggest that: (1) numerous samples are necessary to adequately characterize a littoral fish community, (2) sampling should be done when vegetation and young-of-year densities are highest and (3) sampling during a single year is inadequate to reveal the full community. The number of native species has declined by approximately 25% over the last 70 y. A coincident decline in littoral vegetation and associated habitat changes during the same period are likely causes of the long-term community change.