Cassie Jensen of Savage was on her way to her tomato garden when she froze in her tracks.

A grasshopper jumped into a web hanging from the garage. A spider sprang on the grasshopper, wrapped the victim in silk, dragged it to a corner of its web and sucked the grasshopper dry.

"I was freaking out," Jensen said. "That spider was huge. ... I've never seen anything like it."

While experts say lots of spiders are always around in the fall, anecdotal evidence is pointing to larger spiders -- and more of them -- this year, partially because of the unusually hot summer.

"They just look big and fat," said Larry Weber, a retired teacher from the Duluth area who wrote a popular field guide called "Spiders of the North Woods."

"I noticed many years ago a correlation between the size of spiders and summer heat. If summers are hot, spiders are bigger," he said, because insects tend to thrive in heat and spiders are predators that feed on insects.

Jennifer Menken, a wildlife expert with the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History, said spider populations tend to boom every few years.

Sometimes localized populations can spike because of how baby spiders disperse themselves -- by "ballooning," or sending out a strand of silk and sailing on the wind.

"If the wind is right, you get a chunk of them in one place," Menken said. "It's been a good year for certain types of spiders. In late summer or early fall, they're really noticeable."

Mike Misk of Rainbow Pest Experts in Minnetonka said the firm is getting about 10 to 15 percent more calls about spiders than it usually does. Callers, he said, "can't get over the size of them. For people that can't stand them, maybe they're a little bigger than they like."

Weber said many of the big spiders that have been seen in Minnesota in recent weeks are female orb spiders, like Charlotte of the classic children's book "Charlotte's Web."

Orb spiders have been around all summer, but they keep growing until they lay eggs, he said. Common orb spiders in Minnesota include brown furrow spiders and yellow and black garden spiders, which get large but are harmless to people. They spin their webs in the evening and "sit back and wait for prey to come to them," Weber said.

Often they will eat their own web in the morning and remake it the next night, perhaps as a way to hide from predators.

"They're just terrific," Weber said. "I cannot think of a bad thing about them. They're amazing!"

A Star Tribune query on Facebook led to some less positive reactions from some arachnophobes, including an anonymous e-mail that said in part, "All spiders must die. I HATE EM!! I want bug spray so powerful that when you spray it on them, POOF they burst into flames!" But others said they were fascinated by them.

In August, Betsy Ruppert-Kan of Robbinsdale spotted an "absolutely huge" spider in a web that she said was several feet across and supported by "little guide lines" that stretched 15 to 20 feet from a tree to her porch railing. Each night for two weeks, she sat on her porch swing for an hour to 90 minutes and watched the spider weave its web. One night, the family cat swiped at the web with its paw. Ruppert-Kan said the spider "zooped" up the tree and ate the damaged web in a minute or two.

"When I saw how much work went into making those webs, I didn't let [the cat] out again," she said. "This spider seemed to be smarter than a lot of people. After that it made the web way up, five feet out of any animal's reach."

She posted pictures of the spider and its web on Facebook. Her friends dubbed the spider "Charlotte" and began following the spider's story.

"If one fell on me, I would flip out and scream," Ruppert-Kan said. "But I've never seen anything like this. It was fascinating."

Then the spider stopped spinning its web and disappeared. Rupert-Kan confessed that she was "kind of sad."

Such is always the case with spiders, Weber said. Most orb spiders lay their eggs in late August or September, and then die, he said. "You can't stop them from dying."

"That's why Charlotte dies at the end of the story," he said. "It's one of the few books where the spider is the hero and is likable. I have had adults tell me they still cry when they read the book."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380