The hypothesis of ecological divergence giving rise to premating isolation in the face of gene flow is controversial. However, this may be an important mechanism to explain the rapid multiplication of species during adaptive radiation following the colonization of a new environment when geographical barriers to gene flow are largely absent but underutilized niche space is abundant. Using cichlid fish, we tested the prediction of ecological speciation that the strength of premating isolation among species is predicted by phenotypic rather than genetic distance. We conducted mate choice experiments between three closely related, sympatric species of a recent radiation in Lake Mweru (Zambia/DRC) that differ in habitat use and phenotype, and a distantly related population from Lake Bangweulu that resembles one of the species in Lake Mweru. We found significant assortative mating among all closely related, sympatric species that differed phenotypically, but none between the distantly related allopatric populations of more similar phenotype. Phenotypic distance between species was a good predictor of the strength of premating isolation, suggesting that assortative mating can evolve rapidly in association with ecological divergence during adaptive radiation. Our data also reveals that distantly related allopatric populations that have not diverged phenotypically, may hybridize when coming into secondary contact, e.g. upon river capture because of diversion of drainage systems.