Mechanistic understanding of consumer-resource dynamics is critical to predicting the effects of global change on ecosystem structure, function and services. Such understanding is severely limited by mechanistic models' inability to reproduce the dynamics of multiple populations interacting in the field. We surpass this limitation here by extending general consumer-resource network theory to the complex dynamics of a specific ecosystem comprised by the seasonal biomass and production patterns in a pelagic food web of a large, well-studied lake. We parameterised our allometric trophic network model of 24 guilds and 107 feeding relationships using the lake's food web structure, initial spring biomasses and body-masses. Adding activity respiration, the detrital loop, minimal abiotic forcing, prey resistance and several empirically observed rates substantially increased the model's fit to the observed seasonal dynamics and the size-abundance distribution. This process illuminates a promising approach towards improving food-web theory and dynamic models of specific habitats. © 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/CNRS.