Abiotic factors can act as barriers to colonization and drive local adaptation. During colonization, organisms may cope with changes in abiotic factors using existing phenotypic plasticity, but the role of phenotypic plasticity in assisting or hindering the process of local adaptation remains unclear. To address these questions, we explore the role of winter conditions in driving divergence during freshwater colonization and the effects of plasticity on local adaptation in ancestral marine and derived freshwater ecotypes of threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). We found that freshwater‐resident stickleback had greater tolerance of acute exposure to low temperatures than marine stickleback, but these differences were abolished after acclimation to simulated winter conditions (9L:15D photoperiod at 4 °C). Plasma chloride levels differed between the ecotypes, but showed a similar degree of plasticity between ecotypes. Gene expression of the epithelial calcium channel (ECaC) differed between ecotypes, with the freshwater ecotype demonstrating substantially greater expression than the marine ecotype, but there was no plasticity in this trait under these conditions in either ecotype. In contrast, growth (assessed as final mass) and the expression of an isoform of the electroneutral Na+/H+ exchanger (NHE3) exhibited substantial change with temperature in the marine ecotype that was not observed in the freshwater ecotype under the conditions tested here, which is consistent with evolution of these traits by a process such as genetic assimilation. These data demonstrate substantial divergence in many of these traits between freshwater and marine stickleback, but also illustrate the complexity of possible relationships between plasticity and local adaptation.