American eel (Anguilla rostrata) complete their life cycle by migrating from the east coast of North America to Sargasso Sea, where they spawn planktonic eggs and dye. Larvae that develop from eggs need to return to North American coastal waters within the first year of life and are influenced by the oceanic currents during this journey. A coupled physical–biological model is used to investigate the extent to which inter-annual changes in the ocean circulation affect the success rates of larvae in reaching coastal nursery habitats. Our results suggest that natural oceanic variability can lead to changes in larval success rates by a factor of 2. Interannual variation in success rates are strongly affected by the Gulf Stream inertial overshoot events, with the largest success in years with an inertial overshoot and the smallest in years with a straighter and more southern configuration of the Gulf Stream downstream of Cape Hatteras. The mean Gulf Stream length and latitude between 75W and 70W longitude can be used as proxies for characterizing the overshoot events and can be converted into success rates using linear regression.