Debate surrounding the integration of phenotypic plasticity within the neo-Darwinian paradigm has recently intensified, but is largely dominated by conceptual abstractions. Advances in our capacities to identify candidate genes, and quantify their levels of expression, now facilitate the study of natural variation in inherently plastic traits, and may lead to a more concrete understanding of plasticity's role in adaptive evolution. We present data from parapatric threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) demes inhabiting geologically recent, freshwater and saltwater zones of a large estuary. Reaction norms for survival confirm adaptation to local salinity conditions. Analysis of osmoregulatory candidate gene expression within an ecological quantitative genetics framework suggests putative mechanisms underlying adaptive variation, and provides insights into the role of ancestral trait plasticity in this divergence. A sodium–potassium ATPase (ATP1A1) is identified as a candidate gene for freshwater adaptation. In addition to heritable variation for gene expression, we infer significant correlation between measures of expression and individual fitness. Overall results indicate a loss of plasticity in the freshwater deme. We discuss how this is consistent with adaptation facilitated by ancestral plasticity as a heuristic example that may prove useful for future, explicit tests of the genetic assimilation hypothesis.