Phenotypic variation in body size can result from within-cohort variation in birth dates, among-individual growth variation and size-selective processes. We explore the relative effects of these processes on the maintenance of wide observed body size variation in stream-dwelling brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). Based on the analyses of multiple recaptures of individual fish, it appears that size distributions are largely determined by the maintenance of early size variation. We found no evidence for size-dependent compensatory growth (which would reduce size variation) and found no indication that size-dependent survival substantially influenced body size distributions. Depensatory growth (faster growth by larger individuals) reinforced early size variation, but was relatively strong only during the first sampling interval (age-0, fall). Maternal decisions on the timing and location of spawning could have a major influence on early, and as our results suggest, later (>age-0) size distributions. If this is the case, our estimates of heritability of body size (body length=0.25) will be dominated by processes that generate and maintain early size differences. As a result, evolutionary responses to environmental change that are mediated by body size may be largely expressed via changes in the timing and location of reproduction. Published 2011. This article is a US Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.