BY VENI FIELDS
PUNGO — Every morning around 7 a.m., Floyd E. “Dunie” Bonney, Jr., slips a key into the lock of a red door in a white building at the corner of Princess Anne and Indian River roads and he begins what might to the casual observer look like a routine.
But it’s not what Bonney does every day beneath the sign “Bonney & Sons Seafood and Produce.” It’s who Bonney is, which is undisputed among those who know him well, and is stamped in blue letters on white metal plates, secured above the window behind his office chair and bolted to the fenders of his large red truck parked out front:
“He is,” emphasized Rodger Finn, a former captain of one of Bonney’s boats, “the crab boss.”
Bonney is also many other things.
A farmer’s son who was born and raised in one of the oldest families in Southeastern Virginia, nicknamed “Dunie” as a toddler by Margurite Bright, who watched him when his mother ran errands, and the boy ran giggling up and down the sand dunes.
A loyal friend to people with whom he shares breakfast, lunch and dinner every day at local restaurants.
A man with great affection for his loved ones and his dogs, whose photos are displayed in the front room of his business.
A man with disdain for certain technology when a pen and paper will do just fine, thank you very much.
A man whose sense of humor and handshake are as strong at 81 as they were 60 years ago.
And Bonney is a waterman who can tell you anything there is to know about callinectes sapidus, the “beautiful savory swimmer” with sapphire blue claws that has floated in from the sea to the brackish water around Back Bay for generations.
“I loved the water and hunted all my life,” Bonney said. “I had Blue Pete’s at Back Bay Marina for years, and I started fishing out there, crabbing. I was the first one who ever set a crab pot in Back Bay.”
That, he said, was around 1965. Bonney was in his twenties then, a father with young boys, an Army veteran married to his childhood sweetheart, (Patricia) Anne.
When he saw what came up in that first crab pot, Bonney bought more, obtained a license, and became a commercial crabber. Now his sons, Todd, in Charleston, S.C., and Jeffery, and Bonney’s grandson, Colby, do it, too.
“When they graduated after school, I bought them all new boats, motors, and crab pots,” Bonney said. “Get ‘em started crabbing.”
So they have, successfully, ever since, from Back Bay to the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, where the Bonneys are also licensed.
In 2003, Bonney opened a brick and mortar business to sell finfish, shellfish and local produce as well as blue crabs that he sold to northern buyers who still purchase crabs by the truckload for restaurants and other vendors from Washington, D.C. to New York.
“A lot of people associate crabs with Maryland,” said Pam Barnum, the store’s manager. “But they aren’t really familiar with the crabs that we get. They always think that they’re from Maryland, but we’ve got plenty here.”
Bonney holds one of 106 Southside hard crab pot licenses, according to Stephanie R. Iverson, data supervisor for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, one of several agencies that monitor and compile data in the industry.
Fresh fish and shellfish distributed locally, including at Bonney’s store, are mostly gathered from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Bonney said. Crabbing extends throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
One of those monitoring agencies, the Chesapeake Bay Program, describes the watershed as comprising 64,000 square miles and 11,684 miles of coastline along six states, with around 100,000 tributaries branching off five major rivers.
Blue crabs populate that water by the hundreds of millions annually, resulting in tens of millions of pounds of picked meat, according to the 2018 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report compiled by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee.
Bonney offers them live, steamed on site, or already processed in containers from an Eastern Shore plant.
The ones that make their way through local waterways have for decades created meals, memories and maybe a legend or two in the process.
“[There is a] write-up about me in this book,” Bonney said, thumbing through the pages of Colechester Chronicles: The Last Boy-Colonial, written by Todd Barnes of BayBreeze Farms.
In it, Barnes describes how he and other young boys, viewing Bonney’s catch from their spot on a splintery pier and observing Bonney returning “with the boat’s gunwales barely clearing the surface of the water and the baskets loaded with bubbling blue crabs crammed tightly in them,” and how they would sometimes pelt Bonney’s boat with gum balls from the cypress trees they hid behind to “taunt our more well-equipped adversaries.”
Those days may be long in Bonney’s past, but he is anticipating one last ride on those gunwales, according to Finn, who still does maintenance work for Bonney and is preparing to work on the boat currently stored in the Bonney farm yard down Princess Anne Road a few miles from the store.
“I haven’t worked on it in probably two years,” Finn said. “It may take a couple of months to get it ready, but if that’s what [Bonney] wants, that’s what we’ll do for him.”
It’s a sentiment shared often among Bonney’s current employees, who work among some of Bonney’s treasured souvenirs framed on the walls, displayed on shelves, and hanging from the ceiling in the market’s front room.
“This is his passion,” said Susan Lee, who grew up in Creeds and joined the staff in July. “It’s his life.”
Around 5 p.m., except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the only two days of the year the store is closed, Bonney crosses the gravel driveway to his truck. He might head back to the childhood home he has lived in since his birth and shared with childhood sweetheart and bride of 63 years until she passed last year. He might stop by the Pungo Sports Bar & Grill for a beer.
But he’ll be back to start what Bonney calls his “rounds” the next morning to open up. To share stories and memories and eight decades of waterman wisdom with customers and friends who he will likely tell on parting:
“You come back any time. We’re here seven days a week.”
© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC