Art professor turns piscatorial passion into pretty plates


There’s something a little fishy about the latest project by Western Carolina University art professor Jon Jicha. An avid fisherman, Jicha recently painted a couple of his favorite aquatic creatures for the North Carolina Department of Transportation to use in two new vehicle plate designs.

Jon Jicha

Jon Jicha displays his designs for North Carolina vehicle license tags depicting two of the state’s native fishes.

The designs show native brook trout (the state’s official freshwater fish) and red drum (the official state saltwater fish) in their natural habitats. More than just attractive tags, the plates serve to reinforce the necessity of maintaining the state’s natural resources – especially those that tend to get caught and eaten in large numbers.

“My history as a fly fisherman goes back nearly 50 years,” said Jicha, a graphic design and media arts instructor at WCU since 1984. “And I believe that supporting natural habitats and our environment is a self-evident responsibility.” Jicha’s personal commitment to that responsibility began in 2007, when he noticed some specialized vehicle plates and wondered why he never saw any that depicted the state’s two celebrated fish. So he asked a district state senator to sponsor a bill advocating for a native brook trout specialty plate.

It wasn’t until 2014 that the Legislature approved the measure, but it also added approval for another plate featuring the red drum (named because of its color and the drum-like sound that males produce in their swim bladder during spawning time.)

The sale of the plates would help fund habitat protection of red drum waters, said Patricia Smith, public information officer with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries in Morehead City. “In the late 1990s, the red drum species was overfished and in trouble,” Smith said. “With stricter recreational and commercial management measures, the species is now well on its way to recovery. So habitat protection is very important to maintaining and enhancing the red drum population.”

Currently, more than 200 wildlife species are legally protected in North Carolina. WCU students and professors help maintain that protection through wildlife inventory, monitoring and applied research study in the field. “The list of priority species in Western North Carolina is so long and the conservation challenges so great that we cannot meet our management goals and objectives without help from academic partners like WCU,” said Lori Williams, a certified wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission near Asheville.

Jicha’s specialty plates idea is part of a long-term reminder to keep red drum numbers at high levels, said Smith. “The red drum is not in danger like some of our other animals, and we’re looking to keep it that way,” she said. “The license plates are a demonstration of a commitment to our native fisheries.”

Only one hurdle remains: for the plates to be stamped and made, at least 500 orders for each one have to be collected before July 1. “That’s the minimum order for us to issue the plates for sale,” said Brian Smith, communications manager with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Raleigh. “If these specialty plates become available for issuance, customers who purchase the new plate would exchange their old plates for one of these new ones.”

Before customers can order a plate through the DMV, they first have to fill out an application form. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is collecting native brook trout applications. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries is collecting red drum applications.