Incidents of chute cutoff are pervasive along many meandering rivers worldwide, but the process is seldom incorporated into theoretical analyses of planform evolution, partly due to the paucity of observations describing its physical controls. Here, we describe a mechanism of chute cutoff that may be prevalent along large meandering rivers with uniform floodplain topography. The mechanism occurs independently of sudden changes in conveyance capacity, such as those caused by natural dams, and instead, it is initiated during a flood by the incision of an embayment. The embayment is typically located almost a channel width upstream of the entrance to the meander that undergoes cutoff, and subsequent floods extend the embayment downstream until a chute is formed. Using sequences of historical aerial photos of the Sacramento River in California, USA, we found that embayments formed where channel curvature was greatest, or where the channel most tightly curved away from the downstream flow path. Embayments formed only within those portions of the floodplain that were lightly vegetated by grasses or crops. We develop a simple physical model that describes the environmental conditions that can lead to embayment formation. The model considers the role of floodplain vegetation in preventing chute incision and in part explains why chute cutoff is prevalent along some meandering rivers but not others.