Although trait evolution over contemporary timescales is well documented, its influence on ecological dynamics in the wild has received much less attention particularly compared to traditional ecological and environmental factors. For example, evolution over ecologically relevant timescales is expected in populations that colonize new habitats, where it should theoretically enhance fitness, associated vital rates of survival and reproduction, and population growth potential. Nonetheless, success of exotic species is much more commonly attributed to ecological aspects of habitat quality and ‘escape from enemies’ in the invaded range. Here, we consider contemporary evolution of vital rates in introduced Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) that quickly colonized New Zealand and diverged over c. 26 generations. By using experimental translocations, we partitioned the roles of evolution and habitat quality in modifying geographical patterns of vital rates. Variation in habitat quality within the new range had the greatest influence on broad geographical patterns of vital rates, but locally adapted salmon still exhibited more than double the vital rate performance, and hence fitness, of nonlocal counterparts. The scope of this fitness evolution far exceeds the scale of divergence in trait values for these populations, or even the expected fitness effects of particular traits. These results suggest that contemporary evolution can be an important part of the eco-evolutionary dynamics of invasions and highlight the need for studies of the emergent fitness and ecological consequences of such evolution, rather than just changes in trait values.